One-on-One with Sandra Schulberg
Film producer Sandra Schulberg is the daughter of “Nuremberg” director Stuart Schulberg and the niece of Budd Schulberg, the author of the classic novel, “What Makes Sammy Run?” (1941). She was born after World War II in France and raised and educated there and in the United States. With Josh Waletzky, she restored “Nuremberg”, which was produced by her father in 1948. Never released theatrically in the United States, it is coming to U.S. theaters for the first time — more than 60 years after it was produced. I met her in the garden of the house where she’s staying in Santa Monica.
Tony: Where were you educated?
Sandra: I went to first grade in the South of France in a little schoolhouse where we dipped our quill pens into inkwells. When we first came to the U.S., we went to the Everglades where my father and Budd produced Wind Across the Everglades (1958). Eventually we moved to Washington, D.C., and I went to a French lycée called The Maret School, from which I graduated. Then I went off to Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. But I did try to get away several times. I went to study in Mexico and since I had already been abroad, I spent my junior year abroad in New York City [laughs].
T: What did you major in?
S: Anthropology and Linguistics.
T: How did you get into filmmaking?
S: Well, I didn’t plan on going into film. But when I got out of college I got interested in the new Public Access Channels. There was no mechanism in place for community groups or film artists to make programs for television. I joined a small non profit organization called “Open Channel” that was devoted to providing access to equipment and production assistance so that these groups could produce programs about local issues. Public access eventually became a huge new sector of alternative television.
Then I was offered a position in Los Angeles — a chance to work on the creation of original American television drama on PBS, a series called Visions. Barbara Schultz was at the helm and she hired me to be her story editor. Working on those films convinced me that American indie films should be shown in movie theaters. After leaving Visions, I became the founding director of what is now the largest organization of independent filmmakers in the country, the IFP. Our aim was to convince the American audience that independent films were worth watching, and get the critics interested in them — get them to watch and review them. The organization is now over 30 years old.
T: So Harvey Weinstein [Miramax] owes his career to you? [laughing]
S: No. Harvey and his brother were visionary exhibitors and distributors from the beginning. I give a lot of credit to Robert Redford and Sundance. He came along a year later and took over what had been the U.S. Film Festival in Salt Lake, moved it to Sundance, and turned it into the Sundance Film Festival. The Sundance Festival and the IFP together can take credit, I think, for bringing American independent films some prominence and thus for helping to transform the cultural landscape .
T: How did you segue from that into doing Nuremberg?
S: I went on and had a long career producing independent pictures. I spent seven years as a top executive at another PBS series, American Playhouse, where my job, from a base in Europe, was to secure foreign financing for our American features. So, starting in 1989, I was based for seven years in Paris and then Berlin. Then for three years I was the executive producer and chief film investment officer for a private German film fund called Hollywood Partners. We co-financed Quills with Fox Searchlight, and the Miramax release, Undisputed, and a lot of very interesting and high quality European and Australian films. Under my own banner, Schulberg Productions, I co-produced Shadow Magic, a Sony Classic release. I was also involved with helping Barbara Kopple raise the money for her feature-length documentary about Woodstock, which was called My Generation.
T:?Do any of these films make money?
S: Sometimes they make money for their distributors but, sadly, they don’t usually make money for their producers.
T: How about the Woodstock documentary?
S: We’d have to ask Barbara.
T: Did she make another one?
S: She keeps making films, one after another.
T: Is she independently wealthy?
S: No. She is one of our great American filmmakers, and yet she has to raise funds laboriously each time to make a new film. It’s a tremendous struggle.
T: How much does it cost to make a film like that? Are they union?
S: I always tried to do union productions. But the unions are not what drive the costs up. The minimum rates for all of the crafts guilds are really quite reasonable, including for the actors. In terms of the films I’ve made they’ve ranged in cost from $200,000—$15 million.
T: What is it that drives the costs up, then?
S: If you are talking about a fiction movie, it’s what we call the above the line costs. If you pay actors bigger and bigger sums of money or if you pay key department heads way above minimum – these decisions will impact the total cost. But other issues affect cost too: how complex the movie is, if the movie can be shot in six weeks or if it’s going to take a year. And these days, the largest cost, which is becoming endemic, may be the CGI — the computer-generated effects, which can be very expensive.
T: But doesn’t shooting digitally reduce costs over film?
S: Shooting digitally, if you’re talking about live action, reduces costs enormously. Some inde-pendent films, which would have cost several million a few years ago, can now be done sometimes for under a million. The new digital technology has definitely enhanced independent filmmakers’ ability to make low-budget films. But when it comes to releasing them, if there is not a network of theaters that is interested in playing these films, there is a bottleneck.
The other thing that is causing huge problems, as you may be aware, is that film critics are being laid off around the country. I’m shocked at the number of major newspapers, like the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, one of the great papers of all time, that have let go of their film critics. They’ve let all their film critics go.
T: Do they run reviews?
S: They pick up reviews from other papers. In Atlanta they run the Washington Post reviews. This is happening all over.
T: So I’m an endangered spe-cies [laughs].
S: You are, indeed.
T: So how did you get interest-ed in restoration instead of new production?
S: It was only in 2003 that I became interested in and aware of the fact that some of the early films that my father had done, like Nuremberg, were as extraordinary as they are. And that they desperately needed preservation and restoration. And now I realize that the whole body of American independent film also needs to be restored and preserved. With a few exceptions, there is no major ar-chive in the country that has, as a matter of policy, a commitment to preserving this work. So this has now become my next mission.
T: That’s a big mission.
S: It’s a very big mission. Labs are closing down all over the country, or they are converting to all digital. My lab in New York City, for instance, is in the process of getting rid of thousands of cans of film.
T: What do you mean “get rid of?” Destroying them?
S: Oh, no! The head of the lab would never do that. He is trying to repatriate as much film as pos-sible, and we will try to find ar-chival homes for the rest of the material.
But members of the younger generation are not shooting on film. They are shooting digitally. And they think that what they’re shooting is safe, but it’s not. It’s much, much, less safe than film.
S: Because a new print or negative created on polyester stock that’s properly preserved from the beginning in the right ar-chival conditions has a life expec-tancy of almost 300 years. Whereas if you create something digitally, there is no hard drive that has a life expectancy of more than a few years. Through a campaign called “IndieCollect,” my colleagues and I are going to try to bring attention to this issue and do something before it is too late. Meanwhile, for those filmmakers who are interested, I recommend the report put out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences called “The Digital Dilemma,” which is available on the Academy’s website at www.oscars.org.
It’s time to sound the alarm.
Read the rest of Tony Medley’s “1:1 with Sandra Schulberg” at www.tolucantimes.com.